A new series inviting artists, cultural producers, and writers to share their thoughts on and passion about a work of art which made an impact on them. This time writer and C& associate editor Sean O'Toole introduces his number one piece.
Moshekwa Langa, Untitled (Skins). Details of work in storage. Courtesy of the artist and Iziko, South African National Gallery
In 1995, at age 20, Moshekwa Langa presented his first solo exhibition at the Rembrandt van Rijn Art Gallery, a defunct exhibition space in the Market Theatre, Johannesburg.
Langa’s show included Untitled (1995), a hybridized drawing/installation composed of pieces of paper torn from cement bags that he had treated with Vaseline, turpentine, and creosote on a rotary clothing drier in his grandmother’s yard some 200 kilometers north of Johannesburg. The work, which included gestural marks and was likened early on to animal hides, caused a sensation.
I missed the exhibition. But I did see Langa speak about his remarkable work a year later. He showed pictures of its making during a breakaway session at the second annual Qualitative Methods conference, then still an experimental and largely student-run forum hosted by the Psychology Department of the University of the Witwatersrand. I was still new to the art business and asked him if he was a “conceptualist.” I didn’t – as I often still feel I don’t – possess the supple language required to engage his materially enigmatic and genre-defying practice. Langa laughed, but not cruelly – he isn’t that sort of person.
Moshekwa Langa, Untitled, 1995. Installation view at South African National Gallery, 2011. Courtesy of the artist and Iziko, South African National Gallery
I’ve seen Untitled (1995) twice in person. First in 2004, when it appeared on curator Emma Bedford’s A Decade of Democracy exhibition at the South African National Gallery in Cape Town (in a room with Roger Meintjes’s extraordinary photo essay Van Riebeeck’s Hedge – A Voyage Around an Object, 1992). It was Bedford who suggested that Langa’s artwork join the museum’s permanent collection, which is where I saw it the second time – in 2013, in storage. The two curatorial assistants who unpacked it for me laughed when they saw the work. Untitled (1995) is a quotidian work, at least in purely formal terms, but it is also a kind of Jupiter in the cosmology of South African art.
Like our solar system’s fifth planet, Langa’s work possesses its own immense gravity, one that claims many satellites – among them the Galilean moons Dineo Seshee Bopape, Nandipha Mntambo, and Nicholas Hlobo. It is a work that gestures inwards (to artists like Sandile Zulu and Jackson Hlungwani) and outwards (to the Cameroonian Pascale Marthine Tayou and US West Coast accumulation practices of Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy). It might be 21 years old now, an adult, but in its youth it foretold the future.